THE ENGINEER is a prequel story to Treasure in the Core.
It was written by Catrina Dennis, and edited by Aarthi Devanathan.
Five years ago...
“Lana Crusoe has ten minutes to live.”
The ship’s alarm sirens filled the air so densely that she could feel the walls vibrating around her, almost making the warning impossible to hear. Granted, her sense of hearing had already been dulled by a stray shot of laserfire that grazed her ear just ten minutes before, when she’d narrowly escaped the bloodbath that had taken most of the rest of her crew.
“Lana Crusoe has ten minutes to live,” the voice echoed once more over the ship’s systems, rich with static. The woman shut her eyes, the limp body in her arms feeling unusually heavy as she struggled down the cold, blood-stained corridor of her crew’s beloved ship, Hera’s Revenge. Her back felt like it could snap at any second, especially with the Captain’s weight bearing down upon her. “Lana Crusoe has ten minutes to live.” The warning from her A.I. companion was one she’d requested, but as each minute came to pass, the engineer began to wish she hadn’t. VAI had a knack for being annoying in even the most desperate of situations.
“Lana Crusoe has nine minutes to live.”
The woman fell to one knee, her copper skin damp with sweat and blood. She held onto the unconscious form of her crew’s Captain with one hand and pulled a small communicator from her belt. “VAI, that’s enough,” she said. “Open every available escape pod and check to see that my path is clear. Then open the deck’s primary console, and get ready for a data transfer.”
“Yes, Lana Crusoe.”
She tucked the communicator back into her belt and continued down the hallway, passing the lifeless forms of several crewmates, all gunned down by a traitor they’d never expected. Young and steadfast, Gillon Trax had joined the crew less than five years before and had proven to be an incredible strategist in the heat of battle. Trax had been the first intended apprentice for the ship’s former Captain, Teleraan Scarow, and was well on his way toward that same fate. Lana had almost directly disrupted that path when she brought Natalia Cordero on board after a mission three years back, because Cordero almost immediately usurped Trax in Teleraan’s favor. Trax’s outrage at Cordero’s round of promotions from babysitting job to next-in-line for Captai had bred a spy right under their noses. He had contacted the Terrajin Police Force months before, when he had first heard that Scarow had been considering Cordero instead of him. By the time Lana found his messages, the royals of Halsit and the police force on Terrajj had already brought in their combined warships and surrounded Hera's Revenge. Seconds after the fleet had popped onto their radar, Trax walked onto the main deck with two laser cannons strapped over his shoulder and opened fire on the lower-ranking members of their crew.
In the end, Lana’s efforts against him meant almost nothing. Their fates were already sealed by then, and she knew in that moment that the brutalized ship was one hit away from total destruction. Her life was at the mercy of the deadly Terrajin Hex Cruiser that floated a mere fifty meters away. Lana had VAI’s warnings timed to the second against the cruiser’s powerful cannons as they re-charged for one massive final blow against the Revenge.
Lana continued stumbling down the hallway, making a sharp turn and heading up a long ramp that led her back to the ship’s main deck. There were the bodies: Minn, the crew’s excitable chef; Xydine, a cat-like Weelakan male that served as her assistant mechanic; and former legendary pirate Teleraan Scarow himself. His hulking, draconian form had intimidated every single power in the galaxy for decades, and it now lay slumped against the ship’s controls. Scarow had been her mentor, her savior, and the best pirate she had ever known. Now, he was dead at the hands of the very forces they’d outsmarted for the entirety of her life. Hera’s Revenge was a place that Lana had called home for nearly three years — the longest that the Crows had ever spent with a ship — but here she was, staring down her death, along with the crew that had grown to love her so dearly.
Lana steadied her walk, dizzy and more leaden by the second. She knelt down, letting Cordero’s form rest against the console on the floor. Slung over her shoulder had been a cloth sack, and from it, she pulled out what seemed like an old canister from war times long before her own. Then, she pulled a wire from inside of the casing, and plugged it into an open port on the control panel.
“VAI, how long until those cannons fire?”
“Lana Crusoe has five minutes to live.”
Lana cursed under her breath, before yelling directly at the console. “Then hurry up and transfer yourself into this thing!”
Moments later, the console began beeping, and Lana quickly removed her communicator’s connection. “You’ll be safe in here,” said Lana. She didn't care how ridiculous she sounded for speaking so fondly to the advanced program inside of the can. She hauled Cordero up again, struggling to keep her balance as she made her way back down the ramp and away from the main deck. If VAI had missed any of her previous orders before she pulled him out of the ship’s core, it was about to be game over for all three of them.
She blew out a sigh of relief when she found her path completely cleared, doors either open or half-open on her way toward the pods. Lana’s wild hair bounced uncharacteristically behind her, a puff of tight curls pushed back by a bloodied bandana. When she finally found the last available pod, she nearly collapsed, partially dropping the Captain in order to slam one hand on the portable activator for the pod’s hatch. Cordero was tough; she’d survive a little more bruising.
Lana removed her communicator and tossed her supply belt into the pod, then dragged the Captain inside, strapping the smaller woman down into the only available seat. She placed one hand on the frame of the pod’s open door, lifting her communicator to her face. She switched it on again, and almost as if he were desperate to warn her, VAI spoke immediately:
“Lana Crusoe has two minutes to live.”
“I know. I need to leave a message.”
“It’s okay, VAI. Just hurry.”
Lana stepped back, her eyes examining the young woman before her. Cordero had been the crew’s Captain for all of two hours before everything came crashing down, and no matter what the young pirate might say in protest, Lana couldn’t help but blame herself for what happened. If this moment was to be the last time she would ever lay eyes on Captain Natalia Cordero (and Lana was certain that it would be), she was going to make it worth every ounce of pain.
VAI obliged after a tense few beats. “You may begin.”
Lana drew the communicator up and stared into the eye of its camera, forcing a warm smile.
“Hey, Tali,” she said, keeping her tone calm despite the chaos. “I guess this is goodbye. I don’t have much time, but there’s a lot that I need to tell you.”
The floor shook beneath her as the last of their shields finally gave way and disappeared under a barrage of enemy firepower. Smaller crafts were still slowly circling them, taking concentrated pot shots at the ship for fun. Lana continued speaking, facing her communicator directly, completely still as the chaos unfolded around her. The lights cut; the air pressure began to go. Lana's years of training helped her mentally count down the seconds, timing her every word so that nothing was wasted. When she finished, she locked VAI’s physical data chip into the can, threw it into Cordero’s lap, and used every ounce of the strength she had to smack the large button that sealed the pod’s door.
Lana slumped down against the wall that separated her from the pod docks, listening as the process of escape began. The releases clicked forward, loosening the small vessel from their grasps. She could feel the engines kick in from the other side of the wall, hot and suddenly exploding with life. Then the pod shot away into space, carrying Lana’s would-be Captain, her most complicated A.I. project to date, and her last words.
Lana Crusoe, genius engineer, brilliant tactician and life-long space pirate, sat quietly waiting for the destruction of Hera’s Revenge. She took a deep breath in, filling her lungs with the scents of smoke and death. It felt familiar, in a way, and, perhaps a little comforting. Even as a child, Lana knew that going down with her crew and ship was a fate that had long been set in stone for her. She was a pirate --she was a Crow. Her grave was always going to be wherever her crew was buried. While she admittedly robbed Captain Cordero of that same honor, Lana’s final act of piracy was one that she did not regret.
She let her body relax and listened carefully, just barely able to hear the final shot fire from the massive cannons of the Terrajin Navy cruiser above. As the beam of light bore down from the Terrajin cruiser’s cannons and on to Hera’s Revenge, the pod spun off into space, disappearing from sight beyond the final explosion.
Thank you for reading this special short story for Treasure in the Core!
I'd like to extend an extra thank-you to Aarthi Devanathan, who tirelessly edited my writing into this much more presentable story. Check her out on Twitter!
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I'll be releasing more content like this on weeks where there's no new comic chapter! Bonus content like this will include new art, short stories, and perhaps some audiobook readings of those stories to take with you on your commute.
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